Ars Praedicandi: 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

One of the most celebrated and effective literary devices
for developing a storyline
actually used by Luke in today’s gospel
is the secret, narrow, or hidden passageway,
sometimes deployed as the magical or sealed door.

Think back on the famous door
in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
that opened into a wondrous kingdom;
the tiny passageway in Wonderland that required
Alice to consume magical cake and liquid in order to enter;
and of course, Tolkien’s secret entrance to the mines of Mória
or hidden keyhole to the Lonely Mountain.

These fictional passageways serve as potent metaphors
for life’s journey, for choosing to grow and change
often at great risk.

A favorite example of such a metaphorical journey
is the 1994 movie “Stargate,” that eventually morphed
into a huge entertainment franchise.
In the original film,
a fictional wormhole between two universes
opened the way to multiple evolutions in the story
in which lead characters
and even an entire oppressed people
boldly chose to journey a difficult path
that eventually resulted in both
personal and societal liberations.

The point of these mystical passageways is precisely to choose.
Few writers understood that better than C.S. Lewis,
author of The Chronicles of Narnia
who, in a BBC broadcast during World War II
before he wrote his celebrated novels, noted:

The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms … is … preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light. [1]

Most of us have not had direct experiences
with enchanted doors that require us to shrink,
magical wardrobes that open up into fantastic kingdoms,
or cosmic wormholes that can transport us to another universe
though we have all had our share
of waiting in hallways or lines
to board a plane or enter an event.

In a contemporary twist on the “narrow gate” in today’s gospel
one writer has suggested that this pivotal metaphor
might best be reimaged
as a modern turnstile.

While some might consider this a little banal if not irreverent,
I think the analogy holds a lot of promise.
While this $300 million + industry is rapidly evolving
from speed gates to full-height doors
and from tripod designs to high-tech optical designs,
whatever their design they provide multiple and distinct benefits
such as enhanced security,
increased efficiency for entrances and exits,
enforcing required entry fees,
and providing efficient analysis of attendance.

From a more theological perspective,
and I know it sounds a little odd to theologize about a turnstile,
turnstiles take each individual seriously
count each soul as significant
and insure that no one’s presence is overlooked or ignored.

Furthermore, they strip us of excess baggage:
something I have experienced too often
when taking the Blue Line to O’Hare
and trying to maneuver my roller bag through
these unforgiving obstacles.

As in any spiritual endeavor,
entering a turnstile also involves certain risks:
the possibility of getting stuck and embarrassed,
of sustaining personal injury
and even the remote possibility of death: it has happened.

Engaging in this spiritual daydreaming
might have the unfortunate result
of conjuring golden turnstiles at the pearly gates
that control entry into God’s heavenly courts.

Multiple cartoonists have gone in that direction
and there are even several sounds, such as
Marcus Gilvear’s “Turnstiles to Heaven,” and
Roger Manning’s “Turnstile at Heaven’s Gate”
that can serve as a soundtrack to these daydreams.

But this modern metaphor is not intended
to summon images of physical barriers to God,
or spur visions of heavenly turnstiles
even if they are wrought from the purest of gold.

No, for the narrow gate in the gospels is not a thing:
it is a person.
Jesus is the true narrow gate through which we must pass.

Now of course that could sound quite daunting
I mean, who could get through a Jesus turnstile
given his human perfection, and godly holiness?
But the irony is that the God of Jesus Christ makes this
a very generous passageway
as made perfectly clear in today’s readings.

Thus that shocking passage from Isaiah
in which the God of the chosen people,
who originally deemed the Israelites his only beloved
now extends the covenant to every known nation,
designates gentiles as siblings to the Israelites
even announcing that some of them
will be chosen as priests and Levites,
giving them access to the very inner sanctum of God.

Similarly in today’s gospel,
Jesus looks beyond his inner circle
when envisioning the vastness of God’s beloved,
going so far as to clarify that a certain group –
who thought they could rely upon their social connections
and longtime chumminess with Jesus,
(after all, they frequently shared a beer & a burger
with the Only Begotten) –
would not make it through his divine scanner
while hoards of others would be invited
to recline at table with him.

While that might sound like a contradiction,
legions of outsiders crashing the Jesus banquet
while old tavern buddies never make it past sacred security,
Luke’s vocabulary here solves this riddle,
for he has Jesus rejecting those whom he calls “evildoers”
a phrase more accurately translated as
purveyors of iniquity
workers of unrighteousness,
and peddlers of injustice.

It is only those who uphold the justice of God
no matter what their religious affiliation,
their spiritual alliances,
their belief systems,
who will pass through the Jesus gate
and be deemed as worthy of salvation.

Pope Francis has explicitly confirmed this justice key
when in his 2013 encyclical “The Joy of the Gospel”
spoke of those who do not consider themselves
part of any religious tradition
yet who sincerely seek the truth
as “precious allies in the commitment
to defending human dignity
in building peaceful coexistence between peoples
and in protecting creation.” [2]

Francis has continued to stress this point
noting that doing good is key to redemption
and not just having a baptismal certificate
buried somewhere in a scrapbook.

This is completely resonant with the famous
sheep and goats passage in Matthew 25.
Nowhere in that passages does Jesus say that judgment
is based on a fulsome prayer life,
ritual purity,
or religious affiliation.

Rather, it is all based on what we do and the justice we enact.
Thus all prayer, all worship, and all religious affiliation
must be in service of that call to unequivocal love.

The holy irony in this revelation
is that the narrow gate
can properly be understood
not only as the person of Jesus,
but more broadly as the justice enacted in his name.

So when we overlook injustice
and ignore those suffering prejudice, exclusion, and diminishment
the narrow gate closes,
the turnstile locks. The door is sealed.

Thus it is incumbent upon us to seek out
wise gate liberators,
gifted door openers,
and vigilant turnstile operators
who lift the veil on the marginalized,
the downtrodden,
the overlooked,
and reveal how to embrace them as living keys
and as spiritual locksmiths
for prying open that godly gate
often rusted shut by our own prejudice.

As some of you know, one of my ministries for my community
is promoting the canonization of the Capuchin Solanus Casey
who died in 1957 and was beatified in 2017.

Solanus was an unlikely gate opener
since he failed out of the diocesan seminary
and was encouraged to take an intellectually
less rigorous path – like joining the Capuchins.

Even with us, he struggled.
An obviously holy guy, they eventually ordained him
but because of his academic difficulties
he was never allowed to perform public sacraments –
no marriages, no baptisms, no confession
and at first not even allowed to preach.

Not knowing what to do with this simplex priest,
superiors assigned him to the ministry of porter:
Yep… he answered the door.

While another might have labored grudgingly at this task,
Solanus brought unpretentious joy and care
in response to every knock, every ring of the doorbell.

Eventually, he became the reason why people came to the door.
People of every social status
from across the religious spectrum, including atheists,
but especially the sick, the broken,
the downtrodden, and the hopeless
sought the balm of his presence.

When Solanus died in 1957 over 20,000 paid their last respects
and when he was beatified in November of 2017
70,000 filled Detroit’s Ford Field in gratitude
for this simple man
who literally and figuratively
opened for multitudes the very door to the sacred:
the unlikeliest of God’s turnstiles.

In today’s second reading
we are advised to be disciplined in gospel ways,
disciplined to practice justice,
to expand our narrow minds and hearts
so that we might honor those society diminishes
casts aside and overlooks.

For, ironically, they hold the key to our own salvation.
For when we open a door for them
they, in turn, open the door of the just Christ for us
whom we embraced as Lord and God forever and ever.

[1] Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), pp. 11-12.

[2] Evangelii Gaudium, no. 258.

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